You’re nuts. A gay musical! You’ll be dead in this business.” That was the industry outcry Stewart F. Lane faced in 1983 when he announced he would join forces with Allan Carr to produce a stage musical based on the international film smash La Cage aux Folles. Lane answered the critics saying, “It’s funny, heart warming and human, with a terrific score by Jerry Herman. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m getting out of this business.”
But, it did work. The musical secured the first of five Tony Awards he has received either alone or has shared with Bonnie Comley, his striking wife and business partner. He received three Drama Desk Awards, a Drama Critics Circle Award, and Outer Circle Critics Award. On February 2nd, the multi-award winning couple was honored at the Drama League’s annual star-studded benefit (see page 28). Christine Ebersole and Donna Murphy, two two-time Tony Award-winners, hosted the evening, “A Musical Celebration of Broadway.”
Before Bonnie became a partner, Stewart won a Tony for Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) and one for The Will Rogers Follies (1991). As a team, the couple won a Tony for the current laugh hit The 39 Steps (2008) and another for Jay Johnson: The Two and Only (2006).
For them, “Theatre is a communal experience. It’s why we love it. Every time you go, it’s a different experience, a different audience, a different show.” They have produced in New York, on the road, regionally and in London.
“I took what was left of my Bar Mitzvah
money and invested it. That’s how I learned
to produce a show.” (Stew)
One doesn’t need more than 10 minutes to see how this popular, affable couple respect and relate to one another, while at the same time making their differing points of view clear. Dressed in a pink cowl neck sweater, Bonnie reminds one of a slightly older version of pink-loving Elle Woods, the law school heroine of their musical hit Legally Blonde. On the other hand, Stew, as his wife and friends call him, has the casual air and the knowledgeable enthusiasm of a schoolboy who consistently scores A’s.
“When I started out, no one was interested in the theater,” Stew says. “Theater was dying. All the actors went out to California. Johnny Carson went out to LA. There was no business. Broadway was a cavern.” So, he joined the migration west.
After a year in Los Angeles, he returned to New York. “I love this town,” says the Long Island native. “I want to stay here. And I want to learn about theater.” The love affair with theater began according to an oft-repeated story when he was 10. At the invitation of his friend Ricky, he went to see Ricky’s dad Sid Caesar in the Broadway musical Little Me. “My first show. A musical comedy. That did it.”
There were high school productions. “But they couldn’t get their act together to do musicals.” At Boston University he studied acting and that meant classical plays. “Musical theater I had to learn on my own. In summer stock. When I became a partner in the Palace, I learned more.”
After college, Stew was an actor, until he started working as a house manager for Jimmy Nederlander, producer as well as chairman of the Nederlander Organization. Even house managers have time to audition. After a few years, “I went to Jimmy and said I want to be a producer. And he said,” imitating the legendary showman/theater owner, “‘Invest in one of my productions.’ I went through the scripts in his office and picked Whose Life is it Anyway (1979).” Although the play had been a success in London, Stew hadn’t seen it. And a success in England does not automatically translate into a Broadway triumph. “I picked it because the play was important. Dramatic. Theatrical. I took what was left of my Bar Mitzvah money and invested it. That’s how I learned to produce a show.”
That and producing for the next 30 years became the experience he put to use in writing Let’s Put On a Show. In his video master class based on the book he says: “Theater work is teamwork. It’s a group of people who pull together for the good of the show.” Then, he counts the disciplines required to produce a play, skills that are meant to dispel the notion that producing a “play” is frivolous. “Other valuable lessons. Problem solving. Being accountable to others. Meeting tight deadlines. Managing a budget.”
In the past, Stew has explained the transition from actor to producer. “With producing I have the illusion of some control over my life. Instead of my hat in my hand for each acting audition, I could actually be responsible for myself as well as for others. That’s what producing is. You’re the person who makes sure that paycheck clears at the end of every week. And at the same time—and this is one thing I can bring to the table that a lot of producers can’t—I know the artistic sense.”
He points out that today most producers are corporations and he names: Universal. Disney. Showtime. But individuals, like him, will always surface. “We love the theater. It’s more of a love affair than a business. There are easier ways to make money.”
Whose fault is it when a movie star gets poor Broadway reviews? “Julia Roberts playing mousey, unstar-like characters in Three Days of Rain?—A poor choice. People have expectations. Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room was right, a star vehicle.”
Bonnie, a Massachusetts native and a graduate of Emerson College, is an actress as well as a television and film producer. She adds, “Stew’s great at analyzing a show because he directs and writes. He’s much better than I am. He can take things apart. This song doesn’t work here or doesn’t move the plot ahead. I give you my first impression.”
The two met in 1995 when they were married to other people. “I interviewed him. Over the next few years I called him for articles I was writing.” By 1997 they were both single. They have five children between them.
“Before we got married, I read scripts for Stew. I still do. He takes the artistic view. I ask is this a commercial production. How many actors? How many sets? Can this be done on a smaller budget? What sort of orchestra? So, that’s how I approach it. And then, is this an interesting story or something I think is worthy.”
With her background in writing and reporting for TV and radio, making the transition into producing for theater wasn’t difficult. “Having Stew helped. In turn I introduced him to film and television. So we work on everything as a team.”
Bonnie adds, “It is exciting to work on a new show. Fundraising is difficult. Stew and I only do projects we believe in. Unlike Max Bialystock, we always invest in our shows. We want the investors to be a good fit, so that everyone has a good time. It’s important they enjoy it, because there are so many better investments they could make.”
“Unlike Max Bialystock,
we always invest in our
Does she prefer documentaries or narrative projects? “I just want to work on good films because I’ve already worked on enough bad ones.” Currently, they are editing a documentary on horses. Among their achievements are the television versions of their Broadway productions including Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner in Cyrano de Bergerac and Raul Esparza in Company for PBS Great Performances, the 2007 documentary ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway and the 2007 crime drama Brooklyn Rules starring Alec Baldwin and Freddie Prinze, Jr.
In what can only be a stroke of theatrical marketing genius, they filmed their musical Legally Blonde during the Broadway run and broadcast it on MTV. Stew explains. “Normally producers won’t televise a production before the last performance, afraid it might ruin box office sales.” Not only did it spike ticket sales in New York, it helped sales on the road and increased sales of the CD. The broadcast was nominated for an Emmy.
Stew ‘s first producer credit was Jerry Herman’s 1979 musical The Grand Tour starring Joel Grey. One thing you notice in his office—the posters from the various productions span two adjacent walls. His productions have starred a panoply of show business royalty including Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Martin Short, Gene Barry, Harvey Fierstein and Leslie Uggams, who is starring in their new musical, Stormy Weather, based on the life of Lena Horne. After breaking box office records in Pasadena, the musical is looking for a Broadway home.
Has Stew noticed a difference on Broadway? “In the last 12-15 years, audiences have expanded. The average theatergoer‘s age is 41 and a half. Shows like Rent, 13, Spring Awakening, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid introduced Broadway to younger audiences.”
If the economy is soft, how or why will people buy tickets? He answers. “Historically and statistically our audience is in a higher income bracket and better educated so we are able to withstand recessions better than other industries. Maybe the marginal shows won’t stand a chance.”
Ever the Mr. Broadway, Stew sounds the call. “See a show, there’s something for everyone. If you want to see a play, a drama, something light and fluffy, it’s there. That’s what Broadway will remain—diverse.”
Having produced so many musicals, do either of them sing or play an instrument? Stew answers, “I play the radio.” Bonnie smiles. “I don’t even sing in the shower.”